Students - How not to cheat:

by Matt Olson

"College and graduate school saved my life." 

I was inspired by the late Ed Turner when he said those words.

Ed was the first African American faculty member at UC Davis, and he and I got along in curious ways. Ed grew up in Topeka, Kansas; and because of the color of his skin, could not go to the school across the street. He had already served in the Army when the Brown vs Topeka ruling began school integration or desegregation, whichever the case may be. By his own reckoning, talking with me during a class break one spring quarter, one path led to gangs, drugs, and crime; the other led somewhere else-- somewhere uncertain and a little scary, but possibly with better outcomes. He saw college as an opportunity to change his life. He went on to Kansas State, where he earned a PhD in Experimental Psychology.  

He saw that I was at a similar choice point in my life, and although he was not taking new undergraduate advisees, he became a good friend and resource during college. He never let me down, and I hope he could say the same about me.

I think he recognized that I was not a brilliant scholar. And he would be one to notice. Ed was an awesome intellect and a math wizard. Ed taught Sensation/Perception, Quantitative Methods, and Advanced Statistical Analysis--without lecture notes and long before Powerpoint. It was all in his head, and he was meticulous. 

What he saw in me, I think,  was persistence and maybe stubbornness. He encouraged me with sage advice like "Read it again, dammit!" and "Study more." and "Try it until you get it." and "Stop feeling sorry for yourself."  It helped that he had a bushy mustache that would actually bristle when he was mad--that and a tattoo on his right forearm that said "Go to Hell."

 So, with Ed's encouragement, I took the academic path. I knew it was a chance, and I didn't want to disappoint him or my eventual academic adviser and great friend Al Harrison. I somehow knew that they would know if I cheated. Or at least they would have means of finding out. Smart guys.  I did not cheat on exams, assignments, or papers. I was too afraid to cheat. I'd rather fail than let my mentors down.

I feel like my current students have no fear or shame. No fear because there is no military draft waiting if they fail at college. No fear because they come from pretty secure backgrounds--in general. They are not mediocre (but serious!) street musicians faced with returning to that hungry life, nor are they drug flunkies with all the swell possibilities that path might offer. Those paths are not even on their radars. No shame because they have been told that, regardless of what they have done, they are valid, valued, and precious. No shame because "It's all good!"

The results have been some of the most preposterous cheating ploys that I have ever witnessed. One student turned in a term paper that was just a series of research abstracts, cut and pasted from the internet, without any organizational scheme whatsoever, and with no attempt even to remove the original author and journal information. The student protested the failing grade that I submitted.

During the last few years, I have put exams online, just for the efficiency of it. Students take the test online, no paper is wasted, immediate feedback is presented. Perfect teaching machine ala B.F. Skinner. When I suspected that some students might be cheating, I began planting ridiculous answers into the feedback section, the part that they are not to see until they submit the exam. Sure enough, every now and then, some waterhead will respond to a short answer item with one of the absurd and nonsensical bombs that I planted. Then he or she claims that the answer came from class notes or the book. When I point out that the answer was some impossible crap that I made up as a trap, they head for the deans office in protest.

Just the other day, a student submitted an exam Key from an exam that I gave a year ago. The date on the submission was still 2012, and the correct answers were actuallyhighlighted -- just like in the original exam Key. The questions didn't exactly correspond to this year's exam, but the student insisted that a tutor helped arrive at those answers. Didn't really know how the highlighting happened. Imagine the surprise.

I guess the point, which is coming soon but not in a simple blink, is this: We have a generation or two or more of students who have been raised to think that their self-esteem is paramount, that above all they should feel good about themselves, and that fear,  guilt, shame, and remorse are outdated evils from a judging society that is aging and fading away. As my late friend Robyn Dawes pointed out, self esteem is an effect, not a cause. If you are lazy and cheat and fail, there is no fucking reason in the world why you should have high self esteem. You are a lazy, cheating, failure. There is your serving of esteem.

"Name calling is bad. It diminishes my self esteem," you say. Well, in psychology-- and in the law-- we do some name calling-- we have some labels. And we have a name for individuals who romp through life soiling everything around them, feeling no fear,  guilt, remorse, or shame. It is "sociopath." Rapists don't care. Spouse abusers don't care. Child molesters don't care. Why should you? You cheat.

You want to cheat on one of my assignments? Think of the company you keep. Here's from Ed: "What the hell is wrong with you?"